Review: ‘The Tale of the Princess Kaguya’
Over the course of its three decades of existence, Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has been strongly associated with Hayao Miyazaki, it’s co-founder and most prolific director. Miyazaki won the 2002 Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away, among numerous other accolades, and his recently-announced retirement has caused many to wonder about the future of the studio (which just put its motion picture production on indefinite hiatus). Many tend to overlook that Ghibli has many other supremely talented animators working for it. Take, for instance, Isao Takahata, another founder of the studio, who has been in the field just as long as Miyazaki. He’s worked less than his colleague — The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is his first film in 14 years — but is easily Miyazaki’s equal.
This film is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese folk story from the 10th century which is the country’s oldest known piece of literature. The story follows the namesake Princess Kaguya through the whole of her life, beginning with a bamboo cutter discovering her as an infant in a glowing bamboo stalk. Convinced he’s been blessed by Heaven, the bamboo cutter takes the baby home to his wife, where they soon discover that she grows at an accelerated rate. Princess Kaguya’s childhood is over in a flash, after which the family leaves their rural home to live in the posh luxury of the capital city. There, Princess Kaguya struggles with the strictures of propriety and repressive social customs. And after a while, her mysterious origins begin to catch up with her.
Remarkably, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya makes an excellent companion piece to Boyhood, seeing as they both track their protagonists’ development through childhood into young adulthood. Of course, Princess Kaguya uses magic to skip the earlier parts, a poignant metaphor for how youth winks away in a flash. Once the main character hits adolescence, her literal growth spurts cease, as she begins to come into her own as a person. Princess Kaguya has little time for what’s expected of a lady in court life. She fights convention with her wits, staving off suitors by turning their false words of courtship against them and setting them to impossible tasks to win her hand. She’s not a “feisty” female though; her journey is one of inward reflection and constant probing, as she seeks to understand life and how best to live it.
That’s an admirable thematic aim, supported by a nuanced sense of pacing and minimalist storytelling. But what truly elevates The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is it’s incredible visuals. The movie is drawn in the style of tradition Japanese sumi-e (ink wash) painting. The look is unlike any other animated film that’s yet been made. It matches perfectly with the story’s fairy tale sensibilities, to say nothing of how beautiful it is. Every new scene is a wonder, the simple, thick brushstrokes and splashes of color expertly swishing to convey movement and emotion. In one astounding sequence, when Princess Kaguya becomes entrenched in grief and runs away from home, the image shreds itself to the most base from imaginable, jagged lines giving the audience just enough to understand what’s going on. It’s a perfect way to portray her state of mind, and the crowning example of Takahata’s visual ingenuity.
Moody, poignant, often funny, and sometimes heartbreaking, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise. It’s a brilliant look at how one comes into one’s own as an adult and how women struggle with what’s expected of them in a patriarchal society. And it is so, so very beautiful.
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